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Carmelita Tiu

Attorney, Professor & Lover of the Arts

Why She’s Amazing

Carmelita Tiu doesn’t want to be a princess. She wants to be more.

Carmelita places significant value on the importance of education to create opportunity. As a first generation American, she believes education played a vital role in her parents’ ability to come to the United States and become a success story.

With a Bachelor of Fine Arts and a Law Degree, Carmelita is a unique mix of creativity and business. In fact, after several years handling legal and business affairs at The Oprah Winfrey Show and OWN, she transitioned into the advertising world and now serves as corporate counsel for VSA Partners, Inc., a design-centric branding and marketing firm.

Carmelita believes strongly in empowering others and giving back. As such, she is an adjunct professor at Columbia College in Chicago. Carmelita also serves on the boards of the Chicago Artists Coalition and Project&, Lawyers for the Creative Arts associate board and DanceWorks Chicago mentorship council.

We had a chance to ask Carmelita a few questions. Something tells us that this modern day trailblazer’s story will continue to be a page-turner.

“I was never called a princess. I actually think that was a good thing…the label is laden with expectations and assumptions.” – Carmelita Tiu

Q & A

Q: When you were a young girl, what did you want to be when you grew up and why?

A: It often changed (and perhaps that was a sign of things to come). A dancer, reporter, artist, business owner, mathematician, doctor. I never had trouble seeing myself wearing several different hats and, to this day, I strive to live a varied and multi-dimensional life.

Q: What did people think when you told them that?

A: I was lucky that my parents never tried to talk me out of pursuing my goals. The only time I remember someone discouraging me from something I enjoyed was when, in my early teens, a dance teacher told me I shouldn’t be a professional ballerina (few succeed, pay is low, career is short). But I never really had my heart set on that anyway…being en pointe looks beautiful, but my toes hated it!

Q: Did people call you “princess” when you were a little girl and, if so, how did that make you feel?

A: I’m a first generation American, so many of my parents’ cultural references were a little different. While manners and being ladylike were certainly encouraged, I was never called a princess. I actually think that was a good thing…the label is laden with expectations and assumptions. Thankfully, I never felt like I had to act or look a certain way in order to live up to this expectation.

Q: How did you become interested in pursuing a career as an attorney?

A: In a very indirect way. Growing up, most of my knowledge about lawyers came from late night commercials (“Have you been in an accident?”) and, later, television (Law & Order, Ally McBeal). It was during art school, while working at an underwriting agency, that I saw how laws and contracts can work to protect people and minimize conflicts. Plus, I’ve always loved words, and for as long as I can remember, helping others has been important to me. The more I learned about the law, the more it intrigued me…and then when I learned about art, copyright, media and entertainment law, I was hooked.

Q: Did you have a mentor or role model who inspired you?

A: My mom. I know it’s cliché, but I’ve always admired her integrity, community involvement, grace under pressure, and devotion to her faith and family. I have no idea how she maintained such poise while raising three kids…it’s hard enough with two.

Q: Did your family and friends support your aspirations?

A: Mostly yes. My parents understood the role that education can play in creating opportunity – it was because of their educational degrees that they were able to come to the United States from the Philippines in the mid-1960’s. With $100 between them, they started a new life built on the promise of something better. When I told my parents I wanted to transfer to art school after my sophomore year of college, and then go to law school in my late 20’s, they trusted my instincts. As long as I had the passion to pursue it and could articulate why it made sense to me, they were supportive.

Q: Did you think about being called a “trailblazer” for choosing this path?

A: I think of a trailblazer as someone who accomplishes something that no one else has. On a macro level, I’m certainly not the first person to fuse a passion for creative endeavors with the business/legal side of things, nor am I the first to commit to being actively engaged in nonprofits, teaching and philanthropy. That said, on a micro level, I definitely feel like I’ve had to write the user manual for my own life. I didn’t know of anyone whose footsteps I could follow, so I had to go with my gut, test my own hypotheses. Not always easy, but definitely rewarding.

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Q: What motivates you?

A: Guilt! (Haha! I went to Catholic schools for more than 12 years, so I can joke about that.) I’ve always had an innate desire to grow and evolve… I get restless if I’m not learning something new. But first and foremost, I want to be a good role model for my daughters, and that means defaulting to the high road even when the low road looks really, really appealing.

Q: Of what are you most proud?

A: I’m most proud of the fact that despite a lot of ups and downs in the past few years, my girls and I are happy. They’ve proven to be these resilient little joy-generators, and I did (and continue to do) a lot of hard work to learn from my past and grow into the future.

Q: What would you like people to learn from you?

A: If it’s just one thing, I hope it’s the joy and importance of being compassionate and kind – to others AND yourself.

Q: What three words would you like people to use to describe you?

A: Compassionate. Resilient. Authentic.

Q: What do you want people to know about you outside of your professional accomplishments?

A: I love to sing and write. One day, I’m not sure how or where, but I’m going to perform a set of old jazz standards, and hammer out a collection of short stories or memoir. Maybe I could do a staging of something I write, and the singing could be part of it. I also love trivia — if anyone needs a last-minute fill-in for a trivia team, I’m happy to help (pending babysitter, of course).

Q: Who do you follow on social media that shares your passion for the law, media and the arts?

A: I’m not super active on social media, but I do follow TEDtalks. They’re a great resource for well-curated talks on a breadth of topics, including law, media and the arts.

Q: If you could eat lunch with one person, whom would it be?

A: Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. What a fascinating, tenacious woman! I recently attended a dinner where she spoke, and her understated wit and wisdom was palpable. I admire her vivacity at 82 — and that she’s built a rich life in service to others.

Q: Which woman would you choose to have on U.S. currency?

A: Eleanor Roosevelt, who said wisely, “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”

Q: What advice would you give to a girl who right now wants to be just like you?

A: Try your best. Don’t shy away from hard work. Be open-minded and adventurous. In going after what you want, it’s OK to ask for advice, make mistakes, feel vulnerable, and look foolish. It’s OK to feel afraid (just don’t let the fear stop you from doing what’s right or going after what you want). You haven’t failed if you’ve learned from the experience. Listen hard, seek to understand and speak your mind.

Bonus Question: What question would you ask the next Modern Day Trailblazer we interview?

A: What are some concrete ways that women can support the growth of girls into strong and authentic women? What was something that someone told you that had a profound impact on you?

Fun Facts:

  • The last book Carmelita read was Yes Please by Amy Poehler. There’s someone else she’d love to meet for lunch!
  • Her go-to karaoke song is “Let’s Dance” by Donna Summer.
  • She is usually right on time!
  • Carmelita loves to say, “Strive for excellence, not perfection.” She explains, “Why not perfection? The notion of perfection can be paralyzing. It’s unforgiving and only allows for one outcome. It fosters risk aversion. It’s based on external cues. It robs you of the joy of the journey. The idea of excellence allows for experimentation, failure, and an outcome that looks nothing like what you expected. These are critical elements to growth, innovation, and progress.”
  • She wants to know if watching back-to-back episodes of Odd Squad with her daughters counts as binge-watching a show? She recently indulged in several episodes of Younger and The Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce.